It is more than 23 years since the curious case of Miguel Induráin, the then four-time Tour winner who ended up being declared “positive in France” for elevated levels of the asthma cure salbutamol, which was banned at the time in that country. It will be no comfort to another four‑times Tour winner, Chris Froome, that the substance is nothing new in cycling.
For almost three months, the Team Sky leader has been involved in a battle to retain his first Vuelta a España victory after an adverse analytical finding for that same asthma cure, which is “restricted” – permitted under a certain limit – exceeded in a urine sample taken after stage 18.
That Froome suffers from asthma and its effects should surprise no one. Many full-time cyclists struggle with the condition, because – as experts have pointed out – they push their lungs to the limit in an environment of exhaust fumes and particles, dust, pollen and rapid temperature changes. His condition has been public since 2014, after the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche revealed he had had a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for the corticosteroid prednisolone while winning that year’s Tour de Romandie.
An insight into the Team Sky leader’s asthma treatments comes from a 2014 interview with the Irish journalist Paul Kimmage. “I take my inhaler every day,” said Froome, adding: “Ventolin only if I’ve got effort. Fluticasone is a daily one, more a preventative, so I take two sprays.” Ventolin is one of the names under which salbumatol is marketed.
Froome went on to explain that he took the inhaler “on the bike before a big effort” and drew this parallel: “I eat breakfast before a long race. Is that not doing something to boost my performance? If I don’t eat I won’t have any energy; if I don’t have my inhaler before a really big effort I’m probably not going to be able to breathe very well. I know I’m not going to be able to breathe very well.”
Inhalers, the Tour winner insisted, are not performance enhancing: “Someone who does have asthma, the airways are going to close up and that inhaler just helps them to close less. It just helps me be more normal and I definitely don’t see that as an unfair advantage.”
Froome had managed to keep the swirl of allegation and questioning around Team Sky at arm’s length, although he gave the embattled squad a significant endorsement by signing a new contract before the Tour de France. At the end of the Tour, I asked Froome if his fourth victory might be tarnished by the controversies. “No. They don’t concern me,” he said. “I’m not going to waste energy getting myself caught up in it when it doesn’t involve me.”
Now, like it or not, guilty or innocent, he is entangled in that narrative. He will wish the salbutamol adverse analytical finding to be seen in isolation but it is bound to be viewed against the background of the past year.
Salbutamol cases are hard to gauge. The Induráin episode ended with no action taken against the Spaniard and is now merely a footnote but it occurred in a very different context: whether or not Froome clears his name, the court of public opinion may be less charitable.
There is something deeply depressing in this case and it is that Froome’s adverse analytical finding prompted little more than a shrug of the shoulders when I cast around for opinions. It comes at the end of 12 months when Team Sky’s credibility has descended from marginal to rock bottom. Whatever the outcome this is another nail in that particular coffin.
Apply the Sliding Doors rule. Imagine if Froome’s adverse analytical finding had happened after eight years when Team Sky’s philosophy had not been to extend the search for marginal gains into completely legal but ethically questionable grey areas. Eight years when they had not won the Tour de France five times but instead had come close while battling valiantly à la Garmin-Cannondale or La Française des Jeux.
Picture a parallel universe where Team Sky had not hired the now‑banned doctor Geert Leinders, where there had been no debate about Sir Bradley Wiggins’s TUEs, no pondering over‑zealous purchasing of triamcinolone and mistaken deliveries of testosterone patches. A world without Jiffy bags or lost computers, where questions were answered frankly, fully and without telling journalists where they could be put.
Then ponder how Froome’s adverse analytical finding would have been received in that other world. People would have cared, massively, that a much-loved institution’s credibility was on the line. I cannot find any sign of that feeling out there. That train left the station a while back.
None of what has gone before proves or disproves guilt in Froome’s case but this event is only partly about him and his eventual fate, important as the outcome undoubtedly is for him and for his sport’s major events. He may be cleared, because it may be ruled that the high reading was because of natural causes outside his control. The damage is not about this particular issue but rather its added weight within the cumulative baggage of what has happened at Team Sky in the past eight years.
Since the Festina scandal of 1998, the biggest enemy professional cycling teams have faced is not scandal per se. It is not a matter of positive drugs tests, rather the erosion of their credibility to a point where followers of the sport feel that indifference is the only rational human response, because any emotional investment seems doomed to disappointment.
There are teams run by survivors of cycling’s wild west era who became fully aware of that danger when the sport glimpsed the abyss in 1998 and have fought accordingly since then to retain the faith of the public. At Team Sky, they have never truly seemed to figure that out, to the great detriment of British cycling’s flagship and all who sail in her. Including Froome.